“Why did this horrible event befall us?” The Kakhovka tragedy – one of the worst man-made disasters of the past decades
September 6, 2023

“Why did this horrible event befall us?” The Kakhovka tragedy – one of the worst man-made disasters of the past decades

Author: Victoria Kulyniak.

Interviewee: Ukrainian activist Oleksandra Pismichenko

The 6th of June has become another tragic milestone of the Russo-Ukrainian war: the explosion of Ukraine’s Kakhovka dam is considered to be one of the most destructive ecological disasters of the past decades.

On 6 June, Russian occupation forces blew up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP), destroying its turbine hall and the dam, leading to critical environmental and humanitarian consequences. Water from the reservoir flooded dozens of villages and towns, ruining buildings and putting people’s lives at severe risk. By 10 June, 47 localities in the Kherson region were underwater, and 31 in the Mykolaiv region. The destructive power of the explosion that led to the flood has washed away agricultural land, which will hinder farming in the region for years. Landmines are also being dislodged by the floodwaters, prompting concerns not just for residents in Kherson, but also those coming to provide assistance.

The terrorist attack of the Russian Federation at the Kakhovka HPP spilled tons of contaminated water all over the territory. It contains faeces, waste from agricultural enterprises, dead animals, thousands of pathogens of infectious diseases, chemicals, petroleum products, explosive objects, plastic, etc. Even the smallest amounts of these substances can significantly contaminate soil and water bodies, cutting fresh water supplies for the local population. The scale of negative effects is difficult to measure, as the final impacts of the disaster are still unfolding, and to a large extent depend on the world’s reaction.

Unfortunately, the initial response of international organisations was neither sufficient nor clear. The UN showed a sign of disrespect towards Ukrainians, celebrating the day of the Russian language straight after the news about the tragedy in Kakhovka. According to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, “The UN made a very specific mistake: on the day when we had a terrorist attack and a crime of genocide, they celebrated the day of the Russian language, they were silent about the event as if their mouths were filled with water.” He added: “I think if they had taken water from Dnipro [River] into their mouths, mixed with engine oil, blood, and the stench of dead animals, they might have behaved differently. But since New York is far away and there is different water, they managed to stay silent all day and do nothing.”

The disaster is a global threat that must not be neglected. Even if the consequences are so far mostly faced by Ukrainians, this does not diminish the need for an urgent international response. In this context, it’s important to mention that Russia’s attack on the Kakhovka HPP has also increased the nuclear threat: the consequences of the explosion could have a serious impact on the cooling systems for the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and the third largest in the world in terms of the total capacity. On June 16, the IAEA issued a warning by its Director General Rafael Grossi“With military activities and tension intensifying in the area near the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, and with this month’s dam catastrophe further complicating the facility’s extremely challenging nuclear safety and security status, it was very important for me to travel to the site again to review developments on the ground, including the plant’s ongoing and planned measures to manage the new water-related difficulties.” Only immediate and bold actions both in the ecological and political perspectives can save the planet. 

The amount of damage to the environment by the occupiers’ blowing up of the Kakhovka HPP is estimated at almost US$1.5 billion. But there is something more than financial losses. Human lives have the highest value. Every natural disaster has a plethora of painful personal stories. Every destroyed house was once a place of love, peace, and safety. Apart from being an ecological disaster, the Kakhovka tragedy is also a humanitarian crisis which must be addressed by the international community. To reveal the personal essence of the catastrophe, Oleksandra Pismichenko was invited to share her emotional experience as a native of the Kherson region.

She described her first thoughts after hearing the news about her home: “On the day this terrible incident occurred, I woke up to a message from a long-distance friend apologising and offering condolences to me and my family. At that moment, I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the disaster. However, when I turned on the news, a wave of emotions overwhelmed me, and tears started streaming down my face. I was completely shocked because I was unprepared for such a tragedy. The places I had called home for 17 years were slowly succumbing to flooding, destined to vanish forever. I felt an immense sense of hopelessness and cried continuously for three days. That was the day I realised that returning home would be painful, and my life was now divided into two distinct parts: “before” and “after.” It was the first time I experienced such despair, disappointment, and a surge of hatred. I couldn’t help but ponder a perplexing question: “Why did this horrible event befall us?” I wondered why no one had prevented it and why there hadn’t been a trial when the HPP was first mined in the autumn. My entire family shared the same sentiment. My mother shed countless tears because our relatives were in occupied Kakhovka, and we were unable to communicate with our grandparents in the initial days. There was no means of connection.”

It’s hard to imagine the amount of despair felt by Ukrainians like Oleksandra. However, they don’t let destructive emotions dominate, being eager to fight for their freedom and identity. Oleksandra shared her way of coping with the constant stress: “One thing that helped me manage my emotions was allowing myself to express them. I permitted myself to cry and dedicated the necessary time to do so. Instead of bottling up my feelings, I acknowledged my sadness and sought support from my loved ones. Sharing my pain with them proved vital. Additionally, maintaining a gratitude journal throughout the war provided solace. Engaging in daily writing within the journal played a crucial role in helping me navigate through periods of emotional instability.”

Oleksandra is a true embodiment of the power of hope and resilience. “As a child, I dreamt of a happy life beyond the confines of my hometown. I would draw metropolises and luxurious settings in my imagination. Before the war, I was heading in that direction, but with the onset of the Russian aggression, I shifted my focus to assisting Ukraine and my region. Being a student of international relations, following the outbreak of a full-scale war, I began participating in international projects to reach audiences outside Ukraine. Returning home is now my sole aspiration… I envision Ukraine as a part of the European Union.”

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